Topics and Product Development Challenges: Leslie Skarra, Merlin Development

Insights by Leslie Skarra, Founder, Merlin Development.


Global Food Forums: Can R&D Coax Better Directions from Marketing?


Skarra: “As manufacturers respond to the cataclysmic changes in what consumers demand from their foods, opportunities arise for R&D to apply all the development tools to build foods for the future,” said Leslie Skarra, Founder, with the product development firm Merlin Development in a recent conversation with Global Food Forums, Inc.
Marketers tend to respond to individual consumer trends—such as a desire for less sodium, no added sugars, or no preservatives—rather than addressing what consumers want in a broader sense. When a company tackles such challenges individually, it creates problems. In contrast, when consumer interests are looked at in a more comprehensive manner, it is easier to have products that have better manufacturing robustness, quality and cost, Skarra says.  “By taking a wider strategy, foods with true value formulations can be attained.”
For example, if marketing comes to R&D and says “take out artificial additives,” then comes and says “now take out sugar,” ideally a food product developer should sit down with market researchers and say “Don’t tell me what you want now, tell me what consumers will want five to ten years from now.” Often marketers are responding to “sound bites” from consumers rather than the “meaning” behind what consumers are saying.
“In my presentation at the ‘Formulating for Value Conference’ this October 27th, I will talk about the importance of having a vision of where you want your product to be in the next five to ten years,” said Skarra. What ingredients and food components are in harmony with that vision? The next step is to go through your cupboard of ingredients and decide which ones would survive that scrutiny and take out the ones that don’t. Then go technology shopping to replace the functionalities that are missing when those ingredients are removed. Solutions can come from process, packaging and/or distribution as well as other ingredients.
Foods of higher value are created when you formulate for the longer term, not just this year’s sound bite.

Global Food Forums: Cost, Quality, Robust Manufacturing – Are Only Two Achievable?
Skarra:  “If one can formulate for the longer term rather than just this year’s consumer sound bite, it is easier to create higher value products,” said Leslie Skarra, Founder, with the product development firm Merlin Development in a conversation with Global Food Forums, Inc. One reason is that a company can better utilize important strategic tools and tactical approaches.
“For example, I will touch on Robust Experimental Design, which is not a technique for short term deadlines,” Skarra went on to say. “When one takes a more strategic view in a new or reformulated food product project, this design can be set up to simultaneously optimize quality, cost and robustness to manufacturing variations in products.”
History shows that products with least cost formulations are often less robust in production unless one formulates for cost and robustness at the same time.  In fact, when looking at computer generated suggestions for an optimal formula for cost and for quality and for robustness, three very separate peaks often appear.
An additional challenge is when one works on individual reformulation objectives sequentially. A classic example would be to first reduced salt and then later look to also removing antimicrobial additives. An initial reformulation effort can make a second one more difficult.
By using techniques such as Robust Experimental Design and by including as many product criteria as possible at one time, formulating for cost, quality and robust manufacturing does not have to be mutually exclusive, said Skar


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